The Beautiful Are Outcasts: Thoughts on Joseph and “A Little Life”
BY JESSICA GROSS
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life begins as a classic coming-of-age tale: four young men, college friends, navigate their way in the world. But slowly (over the course of 700-plus pages), the novel narrows into the story of Jude. A beautiful boy, he suffers a litany of vile abuses, beginning with serial rape at the monastery where he grows up.
Yanagihara masterfully explores the psychic consequences of his tragic backstory. Jude grows into an adult with power, responsibility, wealth, even love—but his self-perception is soured, irrevocably damaged.
The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes. The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves. He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared. But fundamentally, he is the same person, a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated.
I couldn’t help but think of A Little Life throughout LABA’s most recent session. All that we read and learned about Joseph brought Jude’s history to mind. A stunning man, Joseph, like Jude, becomes the object of fantasy, desire, envy, rage.
Joseph is his father Jacob’s favored child, and his brothers cannot withstand their jealousy. They strip him of his gorgeous coat (again, chosenness telegraphed through physical beauty) and sell him off. Joseph’s master is an officer of Pharaoh’s named Potiphar, who gives Joseph the responsibility of overseeing the household. But his beauty—which has blessed him with this special treatment—is also his curse: Potiphar’s wife pursues Joseph mightily. Joseph refuses to comply, and is punished: Potiphar’s wife claims that Joseph has tried to rape her, and Joseph is thrown in jail.
This, our teacher Ruby Namdar explained, is a fundamental linkage: beauty, truth, divinity and tragedy are one. To be beautiful is to be chosen; to be chosen is to be apart. Like Joseph, Jude is marked from the beginning. Of course, Joseph holds tremendous power in the end, as Pharaoh’s right-hand man—but so does Jude, and at what cost?
This all seems counterintuitive, given our associations with beauty: the beautiful have simple, easy lives, free of torment and struggle. Beauty ripens narcissism, allows it to flourish on the vine. The beautiful are praised; the beautiful skate by.
But the truly beautiful are also coveted, projected upon. We think we know them by knowing their surface. We crave them, want to be near them or inside them. We idealize them. We want to own them. Their beauty incites our jealousy, our passion, in ways that can feel out of control—so perhaps if we control the thing that made us feel this way, we will be safe.
In the end, the truly beautiful are outcasts. Whether we enslave them or raise them to power, they are marked as different, apart. They are not privy to the rich, complex, imperfect true beauty of the shared human experience. They stand alone.